Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Chew On This

So it turns out that the staple of my diet for the last almost fifty years has actually been bad for me. I am talking about breakfast cereals.

When I was a kid, most of their names started with “sugar” – Sugar Pops, Sugar Smacks… well there was Frosted Flakes. The ones that didn’t have sugar I put sugar on by the teaspoon full; often several.

Now I know that most of these cereals are carbohydrates, a form of sugar itself. So sugar plus sugar; well it is a recipe for disaster. My blood sugar is dangerously close to the diabetic cutoff. So a few years ago I cut out sugar quite radically. Stopped putting it on things like cereal and coffee; stopped drinking pop. We had one of those sugar dispensers like you see in diners. I would fill that think up about once a week. We don’t even have it any more.

An interesting thing happened – I started to lose my taste for sweet things. Now some cakes and candies look disgustingly sweet; unappetizing almost. I can easily pass up doughnuts or cake. I like ice cream but I don’t need it very often. My “desire” for sugar has dropped… and as a result, so has my weight.

But I still have to eat something for breakfast, I cannot go without breakfast. The way it was explained to me is that if fiber is added to carbohydrate, the absorption rate is reduced. So I look for cereals now that are high in fiber. But there is a problem: high fiber cereals like Shredded Wheat, Raisin Bran, Grape Nuts, ALL taste like cardboard. I am getting tired of eating cardboard for breakfast – very tired.

There are some better tasting nutritious cereals out there but damn, they charge a hell of a lot of money for a tiny box. My jaw gets tired chewing this stuff sufficiently so I can swallow it. I probably burn up a quarter of my daily calories simply chewing this stuff.

In college I loved breakfast. My buddy Scott and I were the first ones in line at the dorm cafeteria every morning. We would have scrambled eggs, sausage, and stacks of pancakes with syrup. But then I was tearing around campus in a bike and partying all night. I made good use of my calories.

Now I am pondering at what point I can be considered “elderly”. And I am reduced to eating cardboard. Well, one advantage for an old guy… it keeps me “regular”.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Yes Virginia, there is a Scrooge

I can't take credit for the idea... I saw it in a cartoon in the New Yorker magazine decades ago. But upon urging by my daughter and co-conspirator, Kara, we crafted this as a holiday father-daughter project a few years ago.

Yes, it is a real sign that we hung on my house!

I was actually surprised that the neighbors didn't complain or that there wasn't an article in the local paper. The HUMBUG sign went up two years in a row with apparently nobody noticing, or caring. 'Tis the season for apathy, I guess.

Anyway, Happy Holidays or Season's Greetings to you all regardless of what deities you may, or may not, worship. Good health and cheer to you all throughout the year and may you enjoy the company of loving people around you. - Robert

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The one person you can rely on.

Completely out of nowhere, you suddenly find yourself in an emergency situation - you are in your car and the accelerator has locked; you cannot stop, it's racing out of your control at breakneck speed. You are going to crash if you don't do something quickly. You are pressing the brake to the floor but the engine is too powerful and the car continues to accelerate out of control.

What do you do?

This actually happened a few months ago and has since prompted the biggest recall of Toyota vehicles in history. It has been blamed on defective floor mats. But this out-of-control situation can come from a number of other causes.

In this case, the people in the runawy car called 911. !!

Consider this for a moment -- four people are careening out of control in a runaway vehicle and their expectation is that SOMEBODY ELSE is responsible for saving them! What they thought thought 911 was going to do for them is beyond me... send the Power Rangers, dispatch Superman? They wasted valuable seconds which could have been used to problem solve their situation. All four died when the car crashed.
There are two things you can do if you ever find yourself in a stuck accelerator emergency:

1. Shift into NEUTRAL - There is no locking mechanism, it easily shifts... you can tap it into Neutral whether the shift is on the steering column or console.
2. Turn off the ignition with the key.
Ultimately we are all responsible for our own safety. Depending on others to save you could result in your death!

Below is a link to a story I wrote on my Second Life blog about my real life personal skydiving near-incident. It is well worth re-reading.
http://zenboomer.blogspot.com/2008/02/21-reality-check.html

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Allusive Dreams

I have insomnia. I don’t mean occasionally having difficulty falling asleep – I mean severe chronic insomnia. In recent years it has become worse. During my last few years at work it was so bad I would sneak out into the parking lot and try to nap in my car. A futile act of desperation; napping is also sleep – I can’t nap either.

I have suffered through this all my life. I can still recall as a youngster my mother putting me down for a nap. She would nap; I would lie in my bed and make tents out of the covers and play quietly. When I was a Boy Scout, I recall being on camp outs where I would be wide awake most of the night hearing the other kids sound asleep. By the end of the camp out I would be exhausted.

High School was hell for me. It was always so difficult for me to sleep that I would go to bed before my parents. I was probably the only teenager in the country who would get up and ask my parents to turn the TV down. But to no avail – the next morning in class I would be sitting at my desk drowsy, my eyelids heavy, my head nodding off, jerking me awake as I caught myself. My high school grades were lousy; it was a miracle that I was accepted to college.

My wife, like most people I know, goes to sleep moments after putting her head on the pillow. It annoys me to no end. I try not to glance at the clock, but torment myself nonetheless: 1:22 AM, 2:43 AM, 3:06 AM and I am still not asleep. I am so drowsy and tired, but being tired and drowsy does not equate to being able to fall asleep. I believe that some “software switch” in my brain is broken. I fall asleep when I reach the point of sleep deprivation when the body can no longer remain awake. Then, my body having sensed the minimum amount of sleep I need to survive, my brain wakes me again. I go through the day with a sleep deprivation “hangover”. It is hell.

I turned to the Medical Establishment for help. I have been to psychiatrists, psychologists, and even a physician who specializes in Sleep Medicine. The latter put me through a sleep study. But sleep studies are designed to detect Sleep Apnea. Like the Saturday Night Live routine about the Greek restaurant where, no matter what you order, they give you a Cheeseburger; they are only trying to answer one question, do you Apnea: yes or no. They gave me a sedative so I would actually sleep. In the morning they showed me how my body wakes dozens of time a night without my knowing. I felt like I slept great and just wanted to keep getting the sedative. Instead they ordered a CPAP machine for me.

I spent hundreds of dollars on this CPAP machine. It was like having a vacuum cleaner hose attached to my face. It takes me hours to fall asleep, now I had this uncomfortable contraption on me. It worked – to the extent that the device wouldn’t allow me to sleep. It now lies in the closet gathering dust.

The physicians and psychologist have had me try just about everything; Blue-Blocker glasses, Alpha-Wave generators, Melatonin, and all kinds of behavior modification techniques – you name it. I am actually one of the few people on whom the knock-out sleep drug Ambian doesn’t even work.

One psychologist even suggested that I “…just think happy thoughts”. I canceled my next appointment.

After a year of intensive medical intervention I have resigned myself to the fact that I was born with this condition and it is incurable. I sometimes fall into some very unhappy thoughts about seeking permanent sleep, but those quickly disburse. But I confess; were it possible to sell my soul to the Devil, I would trade it in a heartbeat to be able to sleep like a normal person. I am so tired.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Sinking Feeling from Climate Change

My Uncle Marsh used to say: “Whatever it is, I’m against it.” He always elicited a chuckle in me when he said things like that. What can I say -- he was my lovable nutty uncle.

But many of our political leaders, who should know better, proffer a similar attitude… specifically the Conservatives in this country. Be the issue extending medical coverage to the millions of citizens without it, or finding solutions to the global climate issue, their mantra sounds remarkably like my Uncle Marsh… whatever it is, they’re against it.

Conservatives are against placing any credence in the hard science behind the facts of global climate change because doing anything to divert it might dip into the sacred “profit motive” of business. And remember, according to Conservatives, American freedom is pretty much narrowly defined as the freedom to make money.

But science is difficult to argue against. Well maybe not so much in THIS country where half of the population believes that God created every living thing pretty much as they exist today in six days. So you couldn’t blame Conservatives doing the Happy Dance when recently discovered e-mails leaked from the computers of the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia in England revealed differences in details regarding the interpretation of data supporting climate change hypothesis.

Ah Ha, shout the Conservatives gleefully… the scientists disagree, prompting Conservative pundits and talk show hacks to fan the flames of couching climate change as a Liberal plot to stifle business interests. Sen. James Inhofe (R–Okla.), who famously dubbed climate change a "hoax" in a 2003 speech, is now the poster child for what the Conservatives are hailing as “Climate-gate”.

And of course one cannot depend on the news media to air the facts in the light of perspective. Since the topic of global climate change was first brought to the forefront, the Media has presented this as a two-sided issue of equal weight. Even to day they will bring on one scientist supporting the position of global climate change and another who opposes it and present it as though the scientific community is equally divided on the issue. They are NOT! The scientific community will always have those who hold different views, but the number of those in the scientific community who feel the science clearly support the theory of anthropogenic climate change is in the overwhelming majority.

What leaves me scratching my head when I ponder the Conservatives reaction is; don’t you think someone is going to notice? Isn’t someone going to notice that the glaciers in Sarah Palin’s back yard have receded to the size of ice cubes? Isn’t someone going to notice that deserts have increased in size by huge percentages every year? Isn’t famine and loss of drinking water going to be rather obvious when mountain sources of snow melt dry up?

I wonder if, had Conservatives had been in charge on the Titanic, would they have denied that the ship was sinking. No; the deck chairs always slide toward the bow. That isn’t an ice burg, we’re just taking on cocktail ice. Hey if you spend all your money on expensive life boats you won’t have enough for caviar.

Nope, we don’t need health care reform, global climate change is a liberal (communist) plot, and The Titanic is a submarine… just wait; it will be popping back up to surface any minute now.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Please Daddy....

Sometime my family wonders why I don't get very excited about Christmas. My sister and I got plenty of gifts as evidenced by the photo here of Christmas 1957. We were a middle-class family living the American Dream in the suburbs. But like a lot of suburban middle-class families, we had our dark secrets.

Tis not the season to rain on anyone else's holiday so I am not going to do it here. Instead I will simply post this song by the late John Denver which, I might add, I have great difficulty listening to without singing along until my voice fails.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Future is Here... Now!!!

I know I visited this topic already recently, still I am fascinated by all that has (and has not) changed during my short tenure on the planet.

I encourage you to check out this link: www.pixelmatic.com.au/2000

The page contains excerpts from July 22, 1961, Weekend Magazine explaining what life will be like in the year 2000. Below are some highlights:
  • By the year 2020, five per cent of the world's population will have emigrated into space. Many will have visited the moon and beyond.
  • There will be moving plastic-covered pavements, individual hoppicopters, and 200 m.p.h. monorail trains operating in all large cities.
  • At work, Dad will operate on a 24 hour week. The office will be air-conditioned with stimulating scents and extra oxygen - to give a physical and psychological lift.
Strap on your jet packs, citizens... there's work to be done!

Friday, November 27, 2009

Home Cooked Meal

My four-year-old grandson is going through his “picky eater” stage; he doesn’t like anything, except sweets, of course. And he won’t try anything new. Poor little guy – I can relate, I was a picky eater when I was a kid also.

Science has now discovered that, due to genetic differences within our DNA, things do indeed taste differently to different people. I think it is interesting that my oldest daughter and I share some of the same distasteful foods; cocoanut for example.

Still I can’t help but lay some of the blame for my picky eating habits on my mother’s horrible cooking skills. Mom hated to cook so my father did most of the cooking; that is, unless the Jim Beam got to him first. In that case, the meal preparation defaulted back to mom.

Mom liked to use the pressure cooker. She would cook down spuds into mashed potatoes; she would render these spuds down to their basic molecular structure. We ate mashed potatoes in a bowl like oatmeal. Chicken was another favorite for the pressure cooker. When she was done you could bend a thigh bone into a horseshoe shape. I had dinner over at a friend’s house and they had “crispy” chicken. I loved it. Mom thought I was joking when I told her. How could chicken possibly be made crispy, she wondered?

Spaghetti was another dinner staple. The lid came off the pressure cooker and bundles of dry spaghetti noodles were dropped in the boiling water. She never stirred them so the strands fused into “spaghetti cables” about the diameter of a hot dog. Nor drained, the wet spaghetti would slide on the plate; you could tell if the table was level by which side of the plate the spaghetti cables gravitated toward. And this delicious pasta was topped with her own special spaghetti sauce: ketchup.

I once came home from college and was in the kitchen about to cook a small steak. I put some butter in the pan then some Worcestershire sauce. Mom observing this asked me in a haughty voice, “What are you, some kind of gourmet?”

Eventually the things that I had learned to distain started to look tasty when someone else was preparing them. My sphere of foods, including vegetables (100% of which came out of a can in Mom’s kitchen) and fruits, began to broaden. I love now to BBQ during the warm months and confess I like my own cooking.

But my wife is tops at this. I look in the refrigerator and see nothing but condiments. But my wife can pull things out and make a fantastic meal from almost “nothing”. I am a lucky guy.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Yo Ho Ho and a bottle of Rum

We have a wonderful Asian pear tree in our back yard; it produces big round green snappy fruit. In the late summer, when the fruit starts falling on the ground, they are so firm that they split open. My wife gets out there with a ladder and begins harvesting. It’s fun to watch her – so she doesn’t get bonked on the head with a ripe pear, she wears her bicycle helmet and harvests the pears with my long handled fish net… quite the picture.

We don’t spray the pears so most of them have worms in the core. No matter, she just cuts them out when she slices the pears. But the fruit that hits the ground starts to ferment and draws fruit flies… lots of them.

As she brings the pears inside, so in come the fruit flies. They are really difficult to get rid of. After the pears are gone, the flies land on the bananas or the banana bread after my wife salvages the blackening bananas. It is now into November and we still had fruit flies hovering around us when we eat dinner or work on the computer. They are almost too small to swat. With our declining depth perception, we clap our hands in the air but they survive our futile attempts to kill them.

The other night I was making Rum and Ginger Ale cocktails. Damn, there was a fruit fly in one of the drinks. Before I made the next round, I noticed one dead fly in the shot glass. I washed out the shot glass and measured another shot… there was yet another dead fruit fly in the shot glass. It must have come from the open bottle of rum.

There was about a half inch of rum at the bottom of the bottle; holding the bottle up to the light there I saw two dead (or drunk) fruit flies in the dregs at the bottom. My wife wanted to know if I was going to use that rum. “Sure,” I said, “I can just filter it with a coffee filter”. I left the open bottle of rum on the counter.

After cocktails I was about to put the lid on the rum when I inspected the bottom of the bottle once again. By now I counted ten fruit flies in the dregs of rum. The rum was clearly attracting the fruit flies. This, I thought, might be an excellent way to rid the house of these tiny pests.

I have had the open bottle of rum out for two days nowl; there must be at least 50 or 60 dead flies in the little rum remaining. While cleaning the dishes after dinner, I noticed three flies hovering over the open neck of the bottle. Soon they landed on the rim and walked down inside. Fascinating to watch.

The house is now free of fruit flies. In case you were wondering; No, I don’t plan on filtering and drinking the remaining rum. It would likely taste too “fruity” anyway.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Back to the Future

I recently came across some old Popular Science and similar magazines from the 1950’s. Thumbing thorough these magazines provided a delightful trip back into my youthful days as an impressionable kid growing up during the Cold War, Space Race and Transistors. The covers of these mags usually sported a picture of the Personal Hover Craft we would all use to get to work or the car vacation we would all take to Hawaii via the Under-ocean Highway.

Most of these things never came to pass. And the more mundane technological advances, like VHS tape recorders, CDs and DVD’s, land phone lines and the like, are quickly disappearing from use with barely a notice. But what interests me more are the things that I believe will never become obsolete regardless of technological advancement. Things like:

Books – The new Kindle device notwithstanding, paper books I believe will remain with us. Books can take a lot of abuse, are easily shared and can be used anywhere without the need for batteries or electricity. Professional archivists agree that paper lasts much longer than most modern media, including CDs which have a shelf life of only a few decades. Plus, a quick glance at your bookmark and you can easily tell how far you have read. Books will be around for a while.

Bicycles – If anything, bicycles are becoming more popular. Though China is moving from a bicycle nation to an automobile nation (790,000 sold in 2008), outstripping sales of cars in the USA, they haven’t increased their highway capacity to the same extent. More cars means more pollution and more energy consumption. Every time I see a bicycle pass me in bumper-to-bumper traffic I know I am losing ground.

Paper – A few years back the computer revolution promised to bring us to a “paperless society” where everything will be done electronically. In fact, cheap printers and the plethora of Information has driven the use of paper significantly upward. Paper production has increased over the years, not lessened. In fact, paper is one of the world’s most renewable resources. We read things on our computers, but we often print out something we want to keep or take with us. Paper is here to stay. Besides, who REALLY appreciates receiving an “e-birthday card”?

Commercial aviation – We are a LONG way from developing a Star-Trek style teleportation device. It this is something you long for; however do take a couple of hours to re-watch “The Fly” if you remain unconvinced.

Radio – Back in the early days of Television, the demise of radio was believed to be surely at hand. But radio continues to be a portable source of information and entertainment and a key component of motor vehicle equipment. Though radio is routinely broadcast over the internet, the technology to be able to receive radio has been cheap and simple for decades. This will not change.

Toilet Tissue – There are societies living on this planet that have YET to be introduced to this staple of human existence.

It is often said that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Now if you will excuse me, my flying car needs tuning. I just need my latest issue of Mechanic’s Illustrated in one hand and a screwdriver in the other.

Friday, November 13, 2009

I Am Not A Number

It could be argued that 1960s were generally not a time of quality and informative programming in television history; the possible exception being the 1967 television series “The Prisoner”. My mother first became a fan of this series and soon I was also hooked. “The Prisoner” was one of the most intriguing and intelligent programs I believe ever to grace the airwaves. Almost nothing in television offering has ever come close to this level of thought-provoking intrigue… that is, until now. AMC (American Movie Classics) has announced the release of three two-our episodes of a modern “reinterpretation” of this classic series. From the trailers I have viewed, it promises to be as riveting and thoughtful as the original.

The premise of the original series is that a man (implied secret agent, become disillusioned with his work) is spirited away to an unknown location known only as “The Village”. It is a charming resort-like small town with friendly inhabitants, all known by numbers, not names. The protagonist played by actor Patrick McGoohan (formerly Secret Agent Man) wakes up in the congenial village as citizen No. 6. He spends the intervening episodes attempting to find out who runs the village and attempting to escape.

There is continual intellectual sparring between No. 6 and No. 2, each trying to break the will of the other – No. 2 to determine why No. 6 resigned, and No. 6 who refuses to yield his personal freedom and relentlessly attempts to escape.

I have purchased the old episodes and have continued to enjoy watching them again over the years. Though produced in a time of the Cold War, surveillance is prevalent in The Village. The underlying themes regarding the balance between public security and privacy remain timely to this day. And it is on these foundations that the new Prisoner series relies. Where do loyalties truly lie? Who can you really trust? Even your own mind and perceptions could be suspect… can self doubt be used as a weapon? Are we really “free” or is freedom an illusion?

So captivated by the theme of being held against ones will though plied with comfort and security, my wife and I extended the metaphor to our respective employment. To celebrate our “escape” we had a Prisoner Party as the theme to our retirement.

The director promises that this show will be anything but predictable; you will need to keep your wits about you as No. 6 and you attempt to escape The Village and determine are we truly free men… or are we merely numbers.

Be seeing you.

AMC Trailer:


Original Series Trailer:

Monday, November 9, 2009

One in a Billion Billion

Had not cancer taken him, Carl Sagan would have been 75 years old today. There are thousands of people more qualified to speak to this man’s life than I. I didn’t know him personally but only through his numerous public appearances and media.

But to my mind nobody spoke more eloquently about science nor as passionately about life than Sagan. He wanted people to be awestruck by the realities of our natural universe instead of mesmerized by fiction, superstition and the paranormal. To this end he dedicated his life and there is now a gaping black hole where once this man stood. Some have speculated that possibly Michael Shermer (Skeptic Magazine) or Neal DeGrass-Tyson (Hayden Planetarium, NOVA Science Now) have stepped into the void left by Sagan. The former comes across a bit too academic and the latter a bit too cutesy, in my opinion. Sagan possessed class and dignity but with the down-home familiarity that made him genuine and personable. The truth is there will never be another Carl Sagan, there cannot be.

In the last year several friends of mine have died, both too young and too unexpectedly. Many find comfort in believing myths we tell ourselves about living on forever; but for me, there exists a greater relevance for appreciating the wonder life through recognizing that it is indeed finite. The following comments were written by Anne Druyan following Sagan’s death.
When my husband died, because he was so famous and known for not being a believer, many people would come up to me-it still sometimes happens-and ask me if Carl changed at the end and converted to a belief in an afterlife. They also frequently ask me if I think I will see him again. Carl faced his death with unflagging courage and never sought refuge in illusions. The tragedy was that we knew we would never see each other again. I don't ever expect to be reunited with Carl. But, the great thing is that when we were together, for nearly twenty years, we lived with a vivid appreciation of how brief and precious life is. We never trivialized the meaning of death by pretending it was anything other than a final parting. Every single moment that we were alive and we were together was miraculous-not miraculous in the sense of inexplicable or supernatural. We knew we were beneficiaries of chance. . . . That pure chance could be so generous and so kind. . . . That we could find each other, as Carl wrote so beautifully in Cosmos, you know, in the vastness of space and the immensity of time. . . . That we could be together for twenty years. That is something which sustains me and it’s much more meaningful. . . . The way he treated me and the way I treated him, the way we took care of each other and our family, while he lived. That is so much more important than the idea I will see him someday. I don't think I'll ever see Carl again. But I saw him. We saw each other. We found each other in the cosmos, and that was wonderful.

Copyright ©2003 Ann Druyan
This blog essay is dedicated to:
John Lahr
Bob Skinner
Lil Brown

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Over their heads

Aviation themes have flown over my head recently; we watched movies “The Aviator” and “Pushing Tin” recently and there is of course in the news, the story of Northwest Flight 188 which overshot Minneapolis earlier this month.

The Aviator – Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, this film Martin Scorsese should be ashamed to place on his film resume’. Yes, it’s THAT BAD. The film is the autobiographical dramatization of the life of Howard Hughes. It was almost as corny as “The Right Stuff”. We are treated to a largely fictionalized dramatization of the eccentric Hughes as a tortured genius and philandering playboy; neither of which came across in DiCaprio’s portrayal. I gave the film two stars primarily for the acting of Cate Blanchette as Katharine Hepburn; Blanchette had me believing she was the cocky Hepburn by the end of the film. The end of which came all too long later.

The aviation sequences in this dog were schmaltz at best. Anyone who has the remotest knowledge of flying knows that pulling back on the stick makes a plane slow down, NOT go up. Power/thrust makes a plane gain altitude. The final climatic scene was Hughes’ dramatic flying of the Spruce Goose in the harbor off Los Angeles. As they tried to make take off dramatic, they shouted out the airspeed to Hughes in the cockpit: “Twenty-five miles per hour… “. Airspeed is measured in knots, not MPH. Basic, Scorsee… did you have anyone with any flying experience on the set?

After the film I showed my wife the actual flight of the Goose posted on a YouTube video. Why The Aviator had this plane flying high over the landscape is beyond me. This film was disappointing, at best.

Pushing Tin – starring John Cusack and Billy-Bob Thornton (is he really called that) with cameo from luscious lips, Angelina Jolie, is about hot-dog air traffic controller. Again, a loosely tethered plot to create friction between to male egos in order to end up with a buddy-buddy film came across as quite contrived.

My wife was quite lost in the technical jargon of Air Traffic Controllers, but I understood the lingo. They were quite accurate in their chatter, that is. The notable exception being that commercial aircraft don’t really begin to spiral out of control if the controllers stop talking to them while they punch each other out in the TRACON (Terminal Radar Approach Control)center. Pilots still maintain level flight and control. (With notable exception, see below).

Poignant for me were the external shots of the airspace outside of Kennedy an LaGuardia airports with the twin World Trade Center towers in the background. You can be sure that a remake of Pushing Tin (not likely) would have a sufficient amount of input from Homeland Security as to make the film even more of a damper than this 1999 version is. Unless you are into ATC and aviation big time, don’t bother to NetFlix this one.

Northwest Flight 188 – Earlier this month, the Minneapolis bound flight overshot their airport by an hour. (Tracking of the flight can be see here). What these guys were doing in the cockpit is what a vast majority of airline pilots do; surf the internet on their laptops because the autopilot is really flying the plane and they are bored silly.

I have spent countless hours on Microsoft Flight Simulator flying online with simulated ATC control to attest that, other than take-off and landings, flying a commercial airliner is boring. Mind-numbingly boring. Once you lift off the runway, confirm positive rate of climb, you bring up the wheels and engage the autopilot and auto throttle. Your course is programmed into the FMC (Flight Management Computer) and you don’t need to manually handle the aircraft until you are about to touch the wheels on the landing.

Having said that, this is NO EXCUSE. The pilot and co-pilot are required to be in constant contact with controllers in case any unforeseen aircraft, terrain, weather or anything else comes dangerously close to their aircraft. That neither of them was monitoring their traffic was inexcusable and their asses should be fired. Well, they will have plenty of time to surf the web on their laptops now. Yes, it can be a boring f*#king job but you still have to do it. Otherwise go work for 7-11.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Einstein Smart - Disney Dumb

I was always a bit suspicious about the Disney’s “Baby Einstein” product pitch -- that you could jump start your precious little drooler’s IQ by planting he/she in front of the TV running these supposed “child development” DVDs. Now the jury (figuratively) has come in on this issue: Baby Einstein flunks miserably.

The “Einstein” part of this equation really goes to the marketing gurus at Disney who knew that parents could easily be parted from their money by simply appealing to their egos that THEIR kid is surely the stuff of which genius is made.

Unfortunately you baby likely fits within snugly the bell curve of statistical probability that they are, like most, average; no DVD marketed under the name of “Einstein” or “Mozart” or anything else is going to change that. Despite Disney’s claim, research actually revealed that preschoolers plopped in front of the TV actually showed a measurable LOSS in cognitive ability. The TV is a one-eyed baby sitter, and not much good at that, even.

Disney isn’t feeling so smart now; they are offering refunds for people who purchased Baby Einstein DVD thinking they would somehow boost their kid’s intelligence while they took a shower.

You can read the full article here in the NY Times.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Society on two wheels

In my wheeling about town, have come to the conclusion that there are three classes of bicycle riders:

The Enthusiast – the Bicycle enthusiast loves to ride bikes for fun and recreation. These people usually wear helmets and other safety gear. They stick to the bike lane in the street or available bike paths and share the road with other vehicular traffic. Mostly they know that in a confrontation with a car, they will lose. They avoid that.

The Activist – These folks feel the bicycle must be forced onto society to replace the evils of the internal combustion engine. They will ride in all weather conditions and spend hours commuting to work in full foul-weather gear. These folks think that their bike is an equal to the motor vehicle and will ride down the middle of the street… pedaling as fast as they can to keep up 25 mph in a 35 mph zone – cars lined up behind them unable to pass. Yet these folks are the most likely to blow through stop signs and ignore red lights. They are on a mission and the bicycle is their instrument of social change. And most of them are not very friendly. Should you just barely avoid hitting one of these guys with your car, they will usually flip you off.

The Suspenders – These are people who are riding bicycles because they are not ALLOWED to drive cars. For any number of reasons they either have had their drivers license suspended or are unemployable and therefore unable to even purchase a full carton of cigarettes at one time, let alone buy a car. These guys usually wear a dirty baseball cap on backwards, no helmet. If they got off their bike and sat on the curb, someone would likely hand them a dollar bill. These guys don’t stop for stop signs or red lights either, but for different reasons… they wouldn’t if they were driving a car either.

I like to ride my bike every chance I get. My wife doesn’t like to ride that much. I think she has ridden her bike about three times in the two years we have had them. I just concluded that she doesn’t fit in any of the above categories. No wonder bike gathers dust in the garage.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The abducted brain

I was pissed – I just stepped off the shuttle to my hotel-resort, everyone's bags made the trip except mine. My green fabric suitcase was not there. All the guests sauntered in to check into their rooms; the shuttle driver was no help, he just looked at me blankly and shrugged.

I followed the others into the hotel, the lobby was huge and I was having difficulty finding the hotel front desk. To make matters worse, I was wearing my pajamas; I really needed my suitcase to get into some decent clothes. Wandering aimlessly past banks of slot machines and gift shops… I could feel my anger rising. Where the hell is that front desk?

I was still angry as I lay there in the dark in my bed until I slowly came to the realization that -- I had been dreaming. There was no shuttle, no hotel, my suitcase was empty and stowed in the garage… and I don’t wear pajamas – ever!

I am amazed how our sleeping brains free-associate unencumbered by our logical frontal lobe. How it can weave intricate stories, images, even create “extras” walking, talking in the background. We know, for example that this place we may be in is our home, yet it doesn’t look anything like our real home. And why is it, when we are in a hurry, the atmosphere turns into molasses forcing us into slow motion, like running under water?

The brain is active all the time, regardless if we are awake or asleep. I believe the brain does some very interesting “filing and sorting” of the information it takes in and processes. For example, we seem to forget our dreams rather quickly upon awakening unless we rewind and run them again in a conscious state. Barring that, they fade from memory like frost on a window.

I think this is intentional, a result of brain evolution. It is why I can still remember after 40 years that the scientific name of the Western Fence Lizard is Sceloporus occidentalis but can’t remember what I had for dinner two nights ago. The brain chooses what is important and needs to be remembered (like where the car keys are) versus that dream which quickly goes in the mental trash heap when we awaken.

And I think that sometimes, a system as complicated as the brain may occasionally drop a datum or two as it sorts millions of bits each minute. I find it significant that a lot of supposed Alien Abductions happen at night when someone is tucked away snugly at home in bed. Is it possible that this memory is merely misfiled in the “real” file when it should have gone into the “dream” file? Remember, if you rewind and rerun your dreams, you can put them into a different level of consciousness.

Hypnagogic hallucinations are events many people experience when in the first stages of sleep. At these first stages, the brain is releasing its hold on reality and lapsing within to its very normal inner realm of sleep. For example, it "disconnects" motor functions so we don't actually run in bed during our dreaming. Seeing deceased loved ones at the foot of the bed is a common experience at this stage. For me these hallucinations are usually auditory; I think I hear the doorbell ring or someone call my name. Once in a motel room, I quite vividly heard someone say in a hushed voice: “I think they’re asleep now”. Thinking someone was hiding in the room with us, I flew out of bed and turned on the lights. I was relieved to confirm that the room was locked and we were quite secure. But it was still creepy. Had I not become a "Skeptic" and learned about hypnagogic hallucinations, like many I could have easily attributed such an experience to Paranormal origins.

Some people are able to experience Lucid Dreaming where they can control the action as one might control a game or role play. My brain isn’t that talented, apparently. I seem able only to go along for the ride. -- Unfortunately, my suitcase didn’t make it to my destination with me on this last trip.

Monday, October 19, 2009

My mind in Jeopardy

My wife and I have just recently discovered Jeopardy, the TV game show that has been running for… well, decades. It airs during our evening cocktail hour so I have taken it on as a very RARE opportunity to prove to my wife that I am smarter than her in some things… (most of which have no relevance to our daily lives, but I digress.)

I do fairly well on most subjects, excelling in those of a scientific nature. Obscure trivia, geography, followed by history I do fairly well on. Just about the time my first Cosmo of the evening hits my neural cortex, I get a bit cocky and think I could probably rake in some quick cash being a contestant on this show. About that time the show offers up some of those “Black Void” categories – subjects which I have almost no hope of knowing remotely about. Should I ever be selected as a contestant on Jeopardy, these categories would realize my worst nightmare:

SPORTS – During no part of my life have I had ANY interest in any sort of sports. I have no interest in who is playing who let alone what their scores may be. Sports are never final; they are played over and over and over again. Now the ancient Maya ball court games would put the winning (!?) team to death at the end of a game. Now THAT I would watch.

SHAKESPEARE – I never could figure out Shakespeare. Its written in some kind of literary “code” so you can’t just read it, you have to decipher the sentences to determine what exactly is going on: “Thrift, thrift, Horatio! The funeral bak'd meats.” What the hell is that supposed to mean? Even reading the Cliff Notes from Shakespeare made my head hurt.

MATHEMATICS – I require the use of a calculator to figure out how much to tip a waiter.

WORD ORIGINS – We speak English, right? So I am assuming all our words came from England. I hope that one was the “Daily Double”.

THE BIBLE – See: “Shakespeare”.

FRENCH LITERARY POETS – OK, You gotta be kidding!

Jeopardy both humbles me and buoys my fragile ego that I am not a complete ignoramus. Besides, all the Simpsons episodes now are reruns.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A father's pride

Yesterday I watched with extreme pride as my daughter had her day in small claims court - taking an asshole of a landlord down for trying to screw her out of her rental deposit. You can read her account of her courtroom experience here.

The point is, Dad's are pretty sensitive about protecting their daughters. But I must say my little girl whipped some serious ass in that courtroom yesterday. My feelings can best be summed up right now pretty much like General Buck Turgidson in this scene from Dr. Strangelove:

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Home Improvement

I am a bit of a do-it-yourselfer. I like to save money, of course, but that isn’t why I do a lot of home repairs myself… seem to enjoy it. At least, I think I do.

The problem with most do-it-yourself projects is that there is a major disconnect between how one visualizes the job will come out versus how the process actually evolves in reality. Let me give you a quite common and recent example.

Problem: The outdoor faucet on the back of my house leaks.
Solution: After having replaced the washers twice, it’s time to replace the faucet.
Estimated job time: 20 minutes

Step 1 – Go to Home Depot. There are two choices of faucet. Not knowing which one will fit - buy both.

Step 2 – After shutting off the water supply, crawl under the house and clamp a vice grip wrench on the pipe so it doesn’t unscrew the galvanized steel extension screwed into the copper supply line.

Step 3 – Unscrew the faucet. However, the wood mounting plate is in the way; it will need to be cut away for the faucet to be unscrewed.

Step 4 – Begin sawing the wood mounting plate with a hand saw to free the faucet. The saw bends. It will require a power reciprocating saw.

Step 5 – Insert a new saw blade into the reciprocating saw. The new blade will not insert due to a stability pin in the saw chuck.

Step 6 – Find a slotted screwdriver and force it into the saw chuck with a hammer to move the stability pin so the blade can be inserted. All the screwdrivers in the tool box are Phillips.

Step 7 – Pound the saw blade into the saw chuck with a wooden mallet.

Step 8 – Use a hammer to remove the saw blade now embedded in the wooden mallet. It's now taken an hour to put a blade in the saw... normally a 15 second job.

Step 9 – Return to sawing the wooden faucet mounting plate with the power reciprocating saw. The saw blade breaks.

Step 10 – Using a hammer and chisel, chip away at the wooden faucet mounting plate until the faucet is free and can be safely unscrewed.

Step 11 – Using a pipe wrench, unscrew the faucet fixture. Note that it surprisingly comes completely free after a mere ¼ turn. Discover that is because the faucet’s rusty and corroded threaded coupling has completely BROKEN OFF inside the copper fitting under the house.

Step 12 – Locate a blow torch which is now needed to unsolder and remove the now damaged copper fitting under the house.

Now approaching the three-hour mark, PAUSE momentarily to assess just how “well” this job has gone so far… Visualize using a blow torch under the house on copper pipes fixed to the wood beams and with the water completely shut off.

Step 13 – Call a licensed plumber to come to the house to replace the faucet.

Cost: $158.00
Plumbers repair time: 20 minutes.
NOT burning down the house: Priceless.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Constantly moving images

The CEO of “NetFlix”, the US Mail DVD rental company, was interviewed on National Public Radio recently. He was giving his projections about where he believed technology, specifically regarding video technology, will be offering us in the near future. NetFlix has been offering more titles for “immediate download” now thereby positioning itself for when the DVD becomes as obsolete as the Bakelite 78 rpm phonograph record.

Reminiscent of the VHS versus Beta Max wars of a few decades ago, the battle between High-Def and Blu-Ray came to armistice with Blu-Ray declared the victor. It has taken me three years to sort out the difference between Blu-Ray and Blue-Tooth… I don’t use either one at the present time.

Eventually all entertainment content will be online – “streamable” I guess is the term. And I am sure it will come at a cost; both to my wallet and in the number of advertisements I will be required to sit through. I said wallet? -- More likely electronic debit from my bank account. With i-pods and i-phones, we are headed toward ponying up more money to watch epic films on a screen less than two inches square. For a kid who grew up on Cinerama, I personally think it’s a step backwards.

Already music CD’s are fading as a media market. Over half the music purchased today is paid for a song at a time and downloaded into an i-Pod or i-whatever. In the NPR article the correspondent asked the NetFlix CEO, “What’s next – hearing music from a chip surgically implanted in our brains?” Laughter… but it was nervous laughter.

I have two old Hi-Fi sets (that’s “High Fidelity” for you youngsters) that were built into furniture quality mahogany cabinets. One of these I gutted and turned into a bar. The other I gutted and turned into a stereo cabinet. It’s odd to think that even my stereo system will soon be obsolete. What do I do with the beautiful cabinet? I don’t need a second bar.

Much of the content on the Internet now is free. Expect that to change also. YouTube is already mulling over ways to begin charging people to view the content. Information is a commodity and commodities are sources of revenue.

I am considering the options of charging all of you to read my blog.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Don't leave home without it

I'm in the "Express Lane" at Safeway this evening... waiting, as one ALWAYS has to do in the Express Lane. The guy in front of me is buying one single packet of Kool Aid. Cost: 28 cents. -- He uses his debit card to make the purchase. [sigh]

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Balloons

On Saturday at 2:00 PM I joined with my family to celebrate my grandson’s third birthday party. The birthday boy was surrounded by parents, grandparents, great grandparents, aunts and uncles and friends of all kinds. There was food and cake and a lot of people hugging.

And there were balloons... that floated up to the ceiling to the delightful squeals of kids, grasping at their ribbons and watching as they floated up just out of reach of their little hands.

Twenty-four hours later, Sunday at 2:00 PM, I joined with friends to remember a man whose life was cut short much too soon from a heart attack. His wife was surrounded by parents and children, aunts and uncles and friends of all kinds. There was food and cake and lot of people hugging.

And there were balloons... which, as a Navy Color Guard played Taps, we all released and watched together in silence as they, and our friend’s life, floated up out of reach of our little hands.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Film review: "I.O.U.S.A." (documentary)

I recently watched the documentary I.O.U.S.A. – a quite chilling wake-up call to Americans about our nation teetering on financial collapse due to our ever mounting national deficits. (view the trailer on YouTube)

The filmmakers interview some of the most principled and influential economists, politicians and business people in the know about this pending crisis including: AlanGreenspan, former treasury secretaries including Paul O’Neill and wealthy Berkshire Hathaway CEO, Warren Buffett. Much of the film time, however, goes to former Comptroller General of the US, David Walker who explains through simple and understandable graphics the serious brink of financial crisis at which this nation is currently poised.

The country faces four distinct national deficits: A budget deficit, savings deficit, trade deficit and leadership deficit.

Most people are familiar with the Budget deficit which as, at the time of the film released had reached $8.7 TRILLION dollars… and is continuing to climb. You might guess that perhaps most of our tax revenue is consumed by Medicare, the Iraq-Afghanistan wars, Social Security? Nope - The largest portion of the taxes you and I pay go to interest on the loans the government has taken out to pay for all these services. As Mr. Walker points out, “the government has no money”, it pays for things through taxes and borrowing. And the rate at which we are borrowing is unsustainable and disastrous for the future of this country.

The personal savings rate of people in this country has dropped to zero. Our trade deficit has placed us almost at the bottom of the world’s trading economy. We produce far less than we import and we are mortgaging out national assets to purchase things we cannot afford. And yet, we continue to blithely stupefy ourselves with the funeral arrangements of Michael Jackson and NFL playoffs.

Crucial to the problem is our Leadership deficit – Congress is anathema to speaking the heresy that they KNOW will doom their re-election prospects: Taxes. It is not possible to spend more than your income; neither for an individual family or a nation. Americans don’t care how much in taxes we pay – whatever it is, it’s too much. Our elected leaders are beholding to short term business interests through the lobbyists they employ. The likelihood of ever enacting any true fiscal responsible policy seems distinctly dismal, in my view.

Unfortunately, this subject does not hit the public consciousness. It’s boring so the news media doesn’t cover it. It’s complex so our politicians don’t talk about it. And planes don’t fall out of the sky because the nation is in debt. Like cigarettes; the tragedy of lung cancer is still many years down the road.

But this is a film that should be shown in every high school classroom. It should be the topic shown every night on the news… a runner at the bottom of the screen showing how much of our tax money we pissed away to China and Japan that day.

Americans usually act when disaster strikes, are very good at putting out fires. We are piss-poor at preventing them in the first place. We have one hell of a wake-up call heading our way. I.O.U.S.A. is trying to shake Americans awake before it is too late. See it.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Tossing out Recycling

I recycle. I believe we (humanity) waste a lot of energy on disposable plastics and packaging and that this has a significant impact on the environment. Yet I have a bit of nagging doubt about the benefit of recycling rolling around in the back of my brain and I can’t seem to shake it.

Magicians Penn and Teller did one of their HBO “Bullshit” series about recycling – strongly criticizing it, as they can only do in their humorous and often profane style. I chalk some of their views as mantra from the usual Libertarian sources (of which P&T are… the “flaming” kind). Still, as my wife often says, sometimes there is a “grain of truth” to an issue. And I think the grain of truth in the criticism of recycling is that it actually may be somewhat wasteful in itself.

Consider this: most people I know wash or rinse out their recycling before they put it in the recycle bin. Each time I rinse out my morning yogurt container, I wonder how much water I am wasting. Think about this for a moment – using pure, clean drinking water to rinse out a container that you are discarding. You know, many concerned scientists warn that the world may soon face a shortage of fresh water is poised to be the next global crisis.

I notice that I am using a lot of water on stuff I am throwing out – between glass and plastic, we fill a garbage can size recycling bin about every two months. I have been considering dumping the rinse water into a bucket so I can actually MEASURE how much water I am wasting on stuff I am throwing out.

Another thing "green" issue has been bothering me also – lighting. I've switched from incandescent to compact florescent light bulbs (CF). They are a bit annoying when you first turn them on as they have to warm up a minute or two before they reach full brightness. No big deal. But it turns out that burned-out compact florescent bulbs should not be tossed the trash as they contain toxic mercury. CF bulbs must be disposed of as “toxic waste”.

Some European countries have outlawed CF lights as has California (pretty close to European as Americans get). But, what is their plan for disposing of all the millions of dead CF bulbs and their dangerous component of mercury?

Another thing I notice during our weekly garbage pick up. Before recycling took off in the public consciousness, there was only one garbage truck coming through our neighborhood. Now there are two – that means double the impact, double the fuel, double the energy to make two vehicles, double the personnel to operate them. My garbage bill just increased this year.

I don’t know what the answer is. When I was a kid we had milk bottles which we took back to the store (after the Milk Man stopped delivering it to our porch weekly). The bottles would need to be washed, that would take water… and the bottle need to be transported. Which is more efficient and energy neutral - washing and reusing containers or washing and throwing away single use containers?

Maybe the key is not to create the packaging in the first place. For example, I hate buying two packages of five screws when I only need six. Likewise I hate having to get a pair of scissors to open a shrink wrapped package of compact fluorescent light bulbs.

I am starting to lean toward the thought that recycling just might indeed be Bullshit.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Craftsman

After 12 years of working for a Bank I needed a change. I was mid 30’s, had just gone through a divorce, and I hated my job. I was also in debt up to my eyeballs, but had just met another beautiful blond babe and things were looking up.

We moved in together and started planning a new life. Layoffs came at the bank and I was more than ready to desert that sinking ship. I took a severance package and moved from the city to a small town in Oregon with my new wife and a horizon full of possibilities. What meager retirement from the bank I took in cash to live off of and embarked on my new career as a custom clock maker and woodworker. To say that I was naive about the potential success of my newly chosen career would be an understatement.

I had designed a wooden cube clock with a brass face. The “creative” aspect was that the numbers on the face looked as if they had all fallen off the face in a jumbled pile at the bottom of the clock. I thought it was pretty clever. It required that I make a cubicle oak case, hand letter the face and insert the works behind a glass bezel. Not high woodworking sill, but it took a bit of time to assemble each one by hand.

I had remodeled the garage of my new wife’s home as a shop. One of the first things I noticed was that it was a bit lonely to work at home alone every day. The guy across the street was a self-employed potter so I went over and visited with him when time permitted. Occasionally he needed help with his pottery business so I worked for him unloading the kiln and dipping pots into the glazing. We were artists and in production… making a living from our crafts. I thought I was pretty cool.

In reality, the money wasn’t coming in. At one point I booked booth space at a nearby town that had an open crafts market. I constructed a booth, paid the booth fees, and hauled my inventory to the market. These were long days of standing around watching shoppers slip into and out of my booth, browsing my merchandise, selling an occasional clock. On a good day, I made almost enough to cover my booth fee. No profit to speak of.

A few feet away there was usually some homeless guy who sat on a bench or on the ground, flailing away on an out-of-tune guitar. This guy would throw a hat out in front of him and soon it would fill up with $1 and $5 dollar bills. He paid no booth fee, no overhead costs whatsoever. The same people who would wander through my booth, but not buy anything, would happily drop money into this guy's hat... money for nothing!! He was making a lot of money. I was clearly backing the wrong business model.

It became remarkably apparent: people didn’t know talent from no talent, no idea of craftsmanship from crap. They would buy the clock made of a slice of wood with no more than a hole drilled into it for the clockworks. They had no appreciation of workmanship that went into an item versus stamping out a piece of garbage.

I believe generally that artists have the capability to appreciate the work of other artists. But the general public doesn’t know shit from Shineola. I believe this is why so many high grossing films and books hit the market each year… people buy into them because they are popular, not because they are good. Quality is lost on the common man.

Sherlock Holmes said it best: “Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself - talent instantly recognizes genius".

Monday, September 7, 2009

Nothing ventured, nothing read.

I must confess, I am somewhat crestfallen. I just asked my wife if she had read my most recent blog post. "I read half of it", she says. !! Isn't that a bit like telling someone half a joke?

Apparently, it's not that she is just bored by me; she also only read half of Kara's blog. Pressing her on this she says that she's already heard all my stories so she doesn't need to rehash them by reading them (again) on my blog. But she has no clue what Kara is going to come up with next... !?

Ok, so this post is for you, my dear wife:
A man walks into a bar with a small dog under his arm and sits down at the counter, placing the dog on the stool next to him. The bartender says, "Sorry, pal. No dogs allowed." The man says, "But this is a special dog -- he talks! I'll prove it..."

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Unsportsman-like Conduct

John Fitzgerald Kennedy JFK may well be best remembered for his famous “Ask not…” inaugural speech, or perhaps for his leadership ushering mans first steps off this planet in to space. But I will remember him for “The President’s Council on Physical Fitness” and how this policy forever created a hatred for competitive sports which smolders within me to this day.

First off, I wasn’t built for sports. I was usually the smallest and lightest kid in my class. Of all the classes I hated most in high school was Physical Education. Competitive sports were alleged to supposedly teach cooperation, teamwork, and camaraderie. Instead they taught me that only the strong deserve to survive and that the tenuous and shallow pursuit of personal “glory” is an underlying value within the American psyche.

You can therefore correctly assume that I was indeed the last one picked, before the wheelchair kid, when choosing up teams for sports. I was the brunt of much hatred and name-calling merely because I was not skilled in throwing, hitting, kicking, passing or catching any form of ball. Mistakes are not well tolerated in sports. Were executions a legal part of the sports program I likely would not have lived beyond my second month as a Freshman.

During the previous two years of pummeling at the hands of bullies at junior high, I had learned fairly well how to run. Now as a Freshman in high school, my buddy talked me into signing up for Cross Country with him. That first year, I was the third slowest kid on the team. By the
time Track season rolled around in the Spring, the two slower guys had dropped out. I kept at it because it was hard and I needed to do something hard. During our two weeks track instruction in PE class, I enjoyed brief status. The other kids quit when they got tired or their sides started to hurt. I left them in the dust.

By my Junior year I was my school’s top Cross Country runner and top Two-Miler. Some of the PE coaches took notice - most finally conceded that this short skinny kid was indeed an athlete. But one coach wouldn’t.

It was during two weeks of boxing instruction in PE. Coach Asshole was matching up kids of simi
lar height and weight to spar in the ring (just mats on the gym floor actually). -- This day, this sadistic bastard matched me, the smallest kid, against the biggest guy in class. I guess he thought it would be funny.

Now back in those days my Dad was a huge boxing fan. I would sit on the couch with him and watch the Friday Night Fights from Madison Square Garden. Dad and I would watch Rocky Graziano and Sugar Ray Robinson while he drank a Pabst Blue Ribbon with a dash of salt. Dad would explain to me the nuances of the sport of boxing; the strategy, drawing in your opponent, back-peddling, feinting a throw to gain an opening. He called it part dance, part sport.

There I stood on the mat in PE class surrounded by the guys. I turned my body to the side to present the smallest possible profile and put my gloves up to protect my face. I danced… left, then right, then again left… God, this moose was at least a head taller than me. But unlike Rocky and Sugar Ray, Moose was stupid – when he would cock his right back to throw a punch, he would drop his left and hand exposing his face. JAB – reaching up, I threw a left jab to his face then feinted back. His right hand swung in a big empty arc through the air, coming nowhere near my face. Dancing, left… right…. Moose again winds up for a right cross, again dropping his left hand and exposing his face – Bam, my left jab catches him square on the nose.

Moose repeats this same mistake over and over again. By now Moose is beginning to fatigue from throwing right crosses that only create wind and suck his endurance. On the other hand, Track Star has endurance on his side and showing no sign of tiring. Moose is stumbling over his own feet now… both hands drop as he looses his balance. Bam – I deliver a right cross to Moose’s jaw. There’s no way I’m going to hurt this guy, I don’t have the upper body strength nor the mass in my hand so do any damage… I’m going for style… and to show Coach Asshole that I am an athlete.

“Time” someone yells and a towel is thrown in, the fight is over. Moose has never laid a hand on my body the entire fight; I have delivered at least a dozen or more left jabs on his fat face and a right cross to his jaw. If anyone had been keeping score, I would have won the match. In my mind, Coach Asshole’s silence affirms my win. That Friday night, I tell my dad about PE class – he is proud.

A few years later I notice that my Dad has stopped watching the Friday Night Fight on TV. “The fights went crooked.” he explains when I ask. There's a cold glass of Pabst on the coffee table; he’s watching Laurence Welk.

Monday, August 31, 2009

National Illness

I’m not sure what to conclude regarding the current state public discourse in this country has recently sunk to. I am talking about the unruly ranting going on at some town hall meetings conducted by US senators and congressmen in their home districts. Here many have been assailed with angry mob-mentality down and dirty mud slinging. Some claim that these demonstrations are planned and staged by entities opposed to change. I am not so sure – I think Americans over the recent decade have generally lost any sense of what is acceptable and appropriate behavior. We’ve completely lost our manners, as if it is now our Constitutional right to act boorish.

Most ludicrous among these demonstrations is the assertion that the Obama Administration is leading the country into fascism. Excuse me?! It was the Bush Administration that introduced warrant less wire-tapping, extraordinary rendition, “enhanced” interrogation techniques, disregard for the rule of law and contempt for the Constitution. As only he can, Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show” took on these fascism nut jobs saying: “It was an election and you lost – it’s supposed to taste like a "sh*t taco”.

However some of the blame for the breakdown of discourse can be laid at the feet of President Obama. How many of us actually know what the medical reform package he is proposing actually looks like? I don’t have a clue – I certainly can’t talk about it with friends or opponents for that matter, I just don’t know what the plan is. The one thing I do know is that the thing most people fear more than change is uncertainty. We have this in spades at this moment and its the Democrats and the President who are responsible for the very unclear lack of message at this point.

But there is enough stupidity going around to continue fueling this debate through the next presidential election. Scanning the letters to the editor of my local paper, I am AMAZED at how many people don’t recognize Medicare as a single-payer government medial program. “Keep your government hands off my Medicare”, one moron wrote. Clearly many more are ambivalent because their employers are picking up the costs (for now) of their medical coverage… so it’s simply not on their radar. If an issue doesn’t hit an American directly in their face, it’s not an issue. Who cares if your neighbor doesn’t have medical insurance coverage!

From a personal perspective myself, I was hoping for some relief for the $1,200 each month that comes out of my meager retirement in medical insurance premiums – roughly a third of my income. I have already given up hope of any reform happening in my lifetime; or at least, by the time I reach Medicare age. It apparently doesn’t seem to trouble the local Republican small business people that me, and thousands others like me, have $1,200 less to spend in local stores and restaurants. I watch the “for lease” signs pop up in the window fronts downtown and shrug my shoulders.

I have been told that one of the measures of intelligence is the ability to make mental connections to related ideas in order to understand the bigger picture. It’s why very bright minds are working on understanding the unifying theory of cosmology with String Theory – uniting the infinitely large with the infinitesimally small. Or on a more practical scale, how would our economy benefit if consumers didn’t rely on bankruptcy to deal with overwhelming medical bills.

Americans say they love innovation, the spirit of inventiveness. Then apply that to the medical insurance debacle. All the other civilized industrial countries have figured it out, why don’t we just peek at the test questions of the county sitting next to us and claim we came up with the answer?

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Birds don't talk.

Recent reminiscing about my 6th grade experience conjured up some other long repressed childhood memories. Back then I used to pal around with several close friends -- there was Steve S, Steve E, Steve B and Craig. [Side note: my mother once revealed to me that she had considered naming me Steve when I was born. Bullet dodged there!]

As with most kids, I was interested in almost everything science – I wanted to know about the natural world in the most detailed way. My parents bought me a set of illustrated encyclopedias; and a human body book (the identical book was given to my wife by her parents when she was my age). This encyclopedia explained barometric pressure, photosynthesis, the light spectrum of hidden colors and about animals, vegetables and minerals. I couldn't get enough.

My world was filled with exploration and discovery. I had a rock collection, a butterfly collection, a bottle cap collection (ok, so the last one may not be science). My father allowed me use of his tools so I was free to indulge my imagination and build things from scraps of wood gleaned from local construction sites.

At this time I was also receiving my mandatory religious instruction: catechism classes taught by Mideval looking nuns at my dad’s Catholic church. Instruction here had little to do with learning beyond memorizing strict rules and odd prayer rituals. In church, it appeared, my world stopped making sense.

Buddy Steve E was also Catholic and so we spent a lot of time together. It was not unusual for us to kneel together to receive communion on Sunday. Steve seemed to share my enthusiasm for making things and exploring. One day I related an observation to Steve E -- I had been noticing bird calls. I made a particularly exciting (and at the time, I thought unique) discovery when I noticed the increased racket some birds made when they noticed a neighborhood cat had been in the yard. The usually happy singing bird calls had changed into alarm-sounding squawks at the presence of the cat. I formed a hypothesis: bird calls were not just random sounds but actually a form of animal communication in a language unique to their species. The birds were "talking" to each other. As with so many things I learned, I shared my hypothesis with my friend Steve E.

The following day when Steve E and I got together to play, he was quite grim; he seemed rather upset, actually. He said he had told his mother what I had discovered about birds. He was anxious to set me straight: “I talked to my Mom about what you said. She is a Sunday School teacher and she said that birds don’t talk.”

I was taken aback… this ran counter to what I had observed about birds reactions to danger. But what troubled me more was how would being a Sunday school teacher give Steve’s mom prerogative to denounce such an idea with such absolution? The concept of birds communicating with each other appeared to be threatening from a religious perspective. I was deeply troubled by this response.

I had already been taught the early stories of the Bible; Genesis and God’s [supposed] creation of the world. From my most earliest years I already assumed and accepted these as "generalized" stories crafted back in a time in history when there were no microscopes, telescopes, prisms, or any tools for that matter whereby man could measure and observe nature larger or smaller than the capabilities of the human eye. The Bible stories were merely allegories; I understood that. But to deny real world observation because it allegedly contradicted the “holy book”!

That incident set me on a path on which I remain to this day. I believe that the universe is infinitely large, that the particles comprising atoms are incredibly small – and I believe there is substantial evidence that birds do indeed "talk"... and eloquently so.